Despite missing some major milestones during their senior year due to the coronavirus pandemic closures, this year’s Fort Atkinson High School graduates, for the most part, have been keeping an optimistic outlook and focusing on the future.
Nonetheless, some students still expressed regret for being unable to participate in prom and spring sports, show choir competition, senior skip day and the class trip, and awards banquets, not to mention attend a traditional graduation ceremony where — before family, friends and fellow classmates — they could walk across a stage proudly to accept their diplomas in person and collectively turn their mortarboard tassels. After all, that pinnacle moment — recognizing that all their hard work and scholarship has paid off — is something they had been striving for the past 13 years.
After three months of online classes and one day before their “virtual” commencement, some 90 to 100 members of the Class of 2020 got to feel a little of the “normal” senior excitement as they gathered at Jones Park Friday evening to take part in a community salute. The three mothers of senior girls who organized it said the gathering was a chance for the teens to get together again, and say “congratulations” and “goodbye” to each other, take pictures with their friends and classmates, and receive the “proper sendoff that they deserve.”
From 6 to 7 p.m., a strong showing of seniors turned out at Jones Park in cap and gown to socialize. Then the students — half of the 201-member class — lined Janesville Avenue as a “parade” of vehicles decorated with banners, balloons and painted signs passed them, their drivers and passengers honking and cheering. Parents, family and other supporters had met in the former Shopko parking lot to form the caravan.
Social distancing, while suggested, wasn’t followed, as photos with friends were the order of the day.
At the gathering, a number of graduating students reflected on how the pandemic affected their final semester and shared what Friday’s senior sendoff meant to them.
Senior Samantha Semrau said the last three months really have been “a struggle.”
“We’ve missed prom, and we didn’t get to graduate with our whole class and (take) the senior trip, and all that,” Semrau said. “But we haven’t gotten to be in school, so we’re senior skip day champions,” she jested.
Still, she said, she’s been keeping in touch with her closest friends.
“The friends that I keep in contact with I talk to on a daily basis, and (with) Facetime, you can do stuff like that,” Semrau said. “So, I’ve still kept in contact with a lot of people, just not face to face.”
Senior Alexis Perez-Martinez said Friday’s senior sendoff was “unbelievable.”
“I always thought that I would get the traditional graduation just like all of my older friends, my parents, my uncles and aunts,” Martinez said. “But, I guess, in a really strange way, we also got to get together at the end of the year. It felt like something was robbed in the beginning, but now that we’re all here together, I just feel very united.
“I was a little bit sad in the beginning, but I’m really happy seeing all my classmates here, and I just think it’s going to be a great day where we all can say goodbye to each other,” he added.
However, the senior lamented really missing and spending time with his high school friends during the past three months.
“Because after graduation, people are going to go to college, university, out of state maybe,” Perez-Martinez said. “And I just feel like we missed a lot of together time — we missed time to hang out, go to movies and go to the park. We just missed a lot of that bonding time.”
Senior Krista Borchardt said Friday’s senior sendoff was a “really nice tribute.”
“And it’s awesome that we (graduating seniors) can have something,” Borchardt said. “But it’s definitely weird, and hard, that we don’t get an actual graduation.”
One positive during the past three months, she said, has been learning some valuable life lessons.
“We have to treasure all the time we get with people because you never know what’s going to happen,” Borchardt said, adding that a downside of the school closure has been being unable to see people.
“Because I’m a people-person, and so it’s been difficult,” she said.
Senior Mia Dominguez said Friday’s sendoff was an “amazing tribute to the seniors.”
“I think it’s amazing that parents came together to come up with this idea to honor us and support us for all of our hard work these last few years,” Dominguez said.
The past three months of being mostly homebound, she said, has forced her to learn who she is more as a person.
“And then also spending some more time with my family, ‘cause during the school year, I can’t always do that,” Dominguez said, citing another plus. “I think the worst part of it (quarantine) is not having that time with my friends, and seeing those people in the hallway who you don’t necessarily really know them, but you know their name and everything. And just saying those everyday hellos and conversations.”
Senior Hayden Zachgo said he was quite impressed by how many people showed up for Friday’s senior sendoff and sponsored the event on such short notice.
“I’m really glad that they (organizers) tried to get everyone together when they were able to because it’s kind of disappointing when you don’t have a graduation, and don’t get to have any closure,” Zachgo said. “But this (sendoff) is kind of a little bit of closure for the end of the year.”
Obviously, a traditional graduation, he said, is something the seniors had been looking forward to. But, he is making the best of the situation.
“I still get to see all my friends, and I still have family coming up and celebrating it with me,” Zachgo said.
The past three months, he said, have allowed him the chance to take a stab at new pursuits.
“The best part is I’ve been able to open up a little bit of time to start things that I normally wouldn’t do that are kind of fun for me to do,” Zachgo said, noting that a lot of his school-related activities were canceled.
Senior Bryan Carrera-Ramos said he honestly was impressed with Friday’s salute to seniors, observing, “We’ve got a decent amount of people here.”
The past three months have been “pretty weird,” he said, since no one had expected the school shutdowns.
“You go into your senior year thinking you’re going to have a good year, fun memories,” Carrera-Ramos said. “And then for this (pandemic) to come down on us ...”
At Friday’s sendoff, senior Gabrielle Calvillo observed: “I think it’s nice that everyone’s gathering around and acknowledging us. Obviously, there’s a lot of things that need to be acknowledged, but some are forgotten and some aren’t.
“And I feel like it’s really beneficial for our class to feel like we’re still going to be the Class of 2020, and this will still be our year no matter what happens with it,” she added.
The senior said she and her classmates have been brought up through a lot of tumultuous events on the national level that have shaped them as individuals.
“I feel like, with our class, we were born during 911 and we were taught that school shootings are becoming normal and everything,” Calvillo reflected. “And now we’re brought this (pandemic), and it’s harder than we all expected. But I think, as a class, we’ll all get through it.”
During the past three months, she said, the health crisis has forced students to come to grips with what they really want out of life and how to move forward.
“And now it’s kind of forcing us to feel like we need to figure it all out,” Calvillo said. “And that’s OK to be rushed a little.
“But I definitely miss the ‘last’ of everything,” she added. “Because senior year is supposed to be ‘your year’ and everything. You didn’t get to finish with your prom or your sports or your friendships the way you wanted to.”
Senior Rhiley Frohmader said Friday’s sendoff was a wonderful tribute, allowing her and her classmates to say their goodbyes and be recognized for their achievements.
During the quarantine, she said, she most missed not showing up for class every day.
“Just not being in class kind of sucked (and) not being around people again,” Frohmader said. “I’m kind of disappointed in the whole year.”
Senior Tim Hoffman said that while Friday’s sendoff was “fun,” he still wished his class could have had a traditional graduation ceremony instead. Nevertheless, he was not terribly disappointed.
“I was fine with going to school because I was leaving halfway through because I had work-release (privileges),” Hoffman said.
Still, he acknowledged missing social connections the most.
“I guess I just miss talking to my friends,” Hoffman stated. “As to positives, I’ve got a lot of free time — a lot of free time!”
Now he is looking forward to training for the military this summer, and then attending the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater as part of Reserve Officers’ Training Corps to become an officer in the military.
Senior Natalie Yandry said Friday’s sendoff was a welcome opportunity to reconnect with all her friends and fellow classmates.
“I think it was nice to finally get back together with everyone, at least just to take pictures, say goodbyes,” Yandry said. “Since we didn’t really get to see each other at a graduation, or anything like that, I’m appreciative of it.”
During the past three months, she said, she worked a lot.
“That’s always nice, actually … money in your pocket,” Yandry said. “Still, it was hard not seeing some of my favorite teachers I didn’t really get to say goodbye to. But, (I was) definitely working, and I spent a lot of time with my dog.”
Overall, she Yandry said, she thinks more could have been done to arrange some type of formal graduation.
“I think a little more could have been done instead of the virtual graduation, like we could have done it outside,” Yandry said, acknowledging, however, that school officials made the best decision they could at the time, not knowing when the virus might subside.
Meanwhile, senior sendoff co-organizerr Michelle Solem, mother of senior Cassie Solem, conceived of and helped start the event, along with Keri Kloskey Koegel and Jamie Stedman, mothers of graduating seniors Alexa Koegel and Caitlin Stedman. She said she emulated another considerably smaller community in which the seniors were driving up and down every street in town for their graduation observance.
“I’m like, ‘that would never work here,” Solem said of Fort Atkinson. “But we could certainly do something like that. So I reached out to Jamie and to Keri, and said ‘Let’s do something’ — we can have everybody meet in the park in their cap and gown, take pictures, and see people they haven’t seen … just be a part of a graduation celebration since it’s going to be virtual.”
On a personal note, Solem said, she would be “missing out on watching my daughter experience (a formal graduation).”
The Fort Atkinson community has been so supportive of the senior sendoff in Jones Park, she commented while handing out free ice cream cups and water.
“I’m really excited that there are people here,” Solem remarked of Friday’s festivities. “We had no idea how many (people) to expect. The kids just seem really full of joy to be a part of this.”
The most important aspect of the sendoff, she said, were the community members who otherwise might not have attended graduation being able to show their support of the seniors during the parade.
“It’s kind of nice because people can be involved without sitting through a graduation ceremony,” Solem said. “It’s just really nice to see the community come together, and everything’s happened since Memorial Day weekend.”
The organizer thanked the following sponsors, who stepped up at the last moment: Councilperson Bruce Johnson, Fort Atkinson Parks and Recreation Department, Fort Atkinson Police Department, Fort Atkinson Fire Department and Ryan Brothers Ambulance, PremierBank, Homes for Independent Living, and WFAW.
Also, Subway, Daily Jefferson County Union, Walgreens, A.J. Koegel, Festival Foods of Fort Atkinson, Dominos of Fort Atkinson, Cassie Solem, Caitlin Stedman, Alexa Koegel, Vern Zech, Keri Koegel, Michelle Solem and Jamie Stedman.